Thursday, April 3, 2014

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

I Was a Communist for the FBI, made by Warner Brothers in 1951, is one of those movies that tends to be treated rather dismissively because its politics are no longer fashionable. It’s actually a fairly well-made and effective thriller with a definite film noir flavour.

The movie was based on the real-life exploits of Matt Cvetic, who spent nine years undercover working for the FBI as a member of the US Communist Party. He paid a high personal toll for his actions, an aspect of the case that the movie focuses on quite strongly.  Just how important Cvetic was has been much disputed, especially by those who like to believe the communist threat in the 50s was all right-wing propaganda.

The movie focuses on the last stages of Cvetic’s undercover operation. Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy) has become a senior man in the party’s Pittsburgh branch, fomenting union unrest in the steel industry. He has been disowned by his family who of course do not know that he is really working for the FBI. The pressure is starting to tell on him. The necessity to live a double life, reviled by his neighbours and by his family and constantly in fear of betrayal, provides the movie’s main claims to being part of the film noir cycle. 

The party has assigned communist schoolteacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) to keep an eye on Cvetic. It’s not that they particularly distrust him - they don’t trust anybody at all. Having everybody spying on everybody else was of course always standing operating procedure in communist parties everywhere. The problem here is that Eve uncovers evidence that Cvetic is not the loyal party member he claims to be but she has grown to like him and to respect him. Her own faith in her chosen cause is starting to become shaky. This comes to a head during a violent strike when she is sickened by the brutal methods employed by party bully-boys.

Eve could have been played as a standard noir femme fatale but for some reason Crane Wilbur’s screenplay fails to develop the relationship between Eve and Cvetic. In fact it fails to develop her character in general or to focus on her own soul-searchings about her commitment to a cause that she has come to regard as evil.

The tension starts to build when Eve falls under suspicion by the party and Cvetic is placed in an exceptionally awkward position. He has to try to rescue Eve from the party’s goons without revealing himself as an undercover agent. The sequences dealing with Eve’s attempted escape provide the movie’s dramatic highlight and are genuinely suspenseful and exciting. Cvetic now finds that he could be next on the party’s hit list.

Frank Lovejoy gives an effective enough performance. Dorothy Hart is solid although as mentioned earlier the script doesn’t really give her sufficient opportunity to really show her acting chops. The supporting cast is more of a problem. The villains would have been more genuinely menacing had they been made a little more three-dimensional and a little less like cheap hoodlums. It’s hard to imagine these cardboard cutouts actually converting anyone to their cause. Real-life American communists were more likely to be well-intentioned fools than hoodlums, although doubtless they would have had their quota of strong-arm bullies.

Gordon Douglas was an amazingly prolific director and is arguably somewhat under-appreciated. His filmography includes a number of interesting films including Them!, the outrageously camp 1965 Harlow with Carroll Baker, the equally camp In Like Flint (1967)  and the underrated 1968 crime thriller The Lady in Cement with Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welch. Douglas shows himself to be quite proficient with I Was a Communist for the FBI, with the railway tunnel chase scene being a well-handled visual set-piece.

When watching this movie you have to resist the temptation to dismiss the subject matter as ridiculous or hysterical. In 1951 the idea that the threat of communism was largely illusory would have been regarded as clearly absurd. There was nothing illusory about the fact that the whole of eastern Europe plus China were now under communist control and there was nothing illusory about the North Korean army that poured across the frontier of South Korea in 1950. There was also nothing illusory about communist infiltration of governments and unions in the West. In my own lifetime I can still recall being a member of a trade union in Australia rigidly controlled by Stalinists. 

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is another fine release from this series, offering a very satisfactory transfer.

Whatever one’s views on the movie’s ideological stance I Was a Communist for the FBI works quite well as a noirish thriller. Recommended.

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